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writers who dare to be Asian

a blog post by Laura Yoo

When I was growing up or even when I went to college and graduate school to study literature, I did not have exposure or access to Asian or Asian-American writers, thinkers, or scholars.  My literary repertoire was almost exclusively white British and American writers. My area of focus was the 18th century British novel. 

In graduate school, I started taking courses in African-American literature, so my education in race came through writers like Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and James Baldwin. Later, I turned to contemporary writers like Tyehimba Jess, Claudia Rankine, and Ta-Nehisi Coates. These powerful voices of African-American writers were my introduction to thinking through my own racial identity, about being a person of color in America. 

Maybe it was the getting-older and becoming more aware of my identity and my place in the world, but I realized that I wanted a more focused, specialized language to think about being Asian in America – our history, culture, and language. Of course there is diversity in Asianness, for “Asian” is not homogeneous. And so my reading list has been drilling down to more specific voices: from Asian-American, to Korean-American, to Korean-American women. I am craving voices that sound as much like me as possible.

Laura (right) walking with Marilyn Chin (left) between sessions at the 2018 Blackbird Poetry Festival at Howard Community College

Meeting poet Marilyn Chin changed everything for me. I saw her read on that big NJPAC stage at the Dodge Poetry Festival in 2017 and met her at the Blackbird Poetry Festival at Howard Community College in 2018. Her poetry and my conversations with her (yes, I had conversations with her – that’s right – and she called me “my sister!” and hugged me) opened my ears to that Asian-American literary voice that I didn’t know I craved. I said to my friend after meeting Chin: “She’s so brazenly Asian-American.” I had never read literature like Ms. Chin’s Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen. Like, what? Who gave you permission to write like this? She did, of course. She gave herself permission and she did it. And her poetry dared me to be Asian too.

More recently, I came across another writer who is brazenly Asian in her writing: Cathy Park Hong. Her book, Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning, is like nothing I have ever read. In this book, she covers a lot of different topics from history, art, cultural commentary, gender, language, poetry, friendship, family, and love – all through a perspective and voice that are brazenly Asian. Some of it so Korean. It seems like the book is written for me and to me. Hong’s book explains to me why I’m drawn to African American literature, why I feel so hyper-visible and invisible at the same time, why I’m connected to Korea though I haven’t set foot in that country since 1989, and why I feel the way I do toward my mother. As Hong asks, “Does an Asian American narrative always have to return to the mother?”  Apparently so.

Hong says, at the end of Minor Feelings, “I want to destroy the universal. I want to rip it down.” And this explains why I want to read books about my people. I’m now reading to learn about myself, not just about how other people live or what other people think. I want to read writers who know me, my family, my language, and my experiences as a Korean and an Asian-American. I want to read works that reflect back to me who I am. I want to read books that explain to me things that happened to me and are happening to me. Specifically.

Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning by Cathy Park Hong

six questions with Ned Balbo and Jane Satterfield

Ned Balbo and Jane Satterfield are the feature writers at the May Wilde Readings, a monthly community open mic supported by HoCoPoLitSo. Join Ned and Jane as well as other open mic readers for a free, virtual reading on Tuesday, May 11th at 7:00 pm.  Register here Get to know Ned and Jane with our Six Questions.

Q: Who is the person in your life (past or present) that shows up most often in your writing?

Ned: I haven’t counted, but Betty & Carmine, my adoptive parents, have racked up quite a few appearances… as have my birth parents, Elaine (Betty’s much-younger sister) & her belated husband Don. 

Jane: It would be interesting to take an inventory… my parents (and their parents) show up in my recent book, Apocalypse Mix, in the context of poems about war’s generational impact on soldiers and civilians, and I’m pretty sure that the presence of other women writers and artists—present and past—is strong.

Q: Where is your favorite place to write? 

Ned: My home office where files, books, knick-knacks, Golden Guides, drafts & memorabilia are all in easy reach & my lap is available to Wyatt, our affectionate polydactyl cat. 

Jane: My second-floor study has plenty of books within reach; I work near a window that offers the welcome distractions of suburban wildlife—the crows, foxes, squirrels, and assorted birds that sometimes make their way into poems.

Q: Do you have consistent pre-writing rituals? 

Ned: Nothing consistent. Sometimes I wander the Internet: musing on pop culture trivia that’s crossed my path while thinking about the poem I’m working on, or gathering background information in PDF form for research purposes. Lately, if I’m in the mood for music, I’ll call up Eno via iTunes (Ambient 1, Harold Budd collaborations, Thursday Afternoon, Neroli, Compact Forest Proposal), Sufjan Stevens’ Planetarium, or maybe Andrew Bird’s Echolocations.

Jane: Music and meditation are often helpful, but I don’t have any consistent pre-writing routines. I am, however, a notebook fanatic—I like to collect images, ideas, research notes, opening lines so I never have to face a blank page.

Q: Who always gets the first read? 

Ned: Jane. She has a way of just  asking questions gently that point me in the right direction if a poem isn’t quite right. I also listen for the degree of enthusiasm she conveys in her always supportive way. If it’s less than I’d like, I know I have more work to do. 

Jane: Ned. He has a perfect ear for the soundscape of a poem and asks all the right questions that encourage me to return to the page. I’m lucky beyond belief that his listening also turns my attention to subjects I’ve overlooked, written off, or avoided…

Q: What is a book you’ve read twice and would read again?

Ned: Prose – Jane Austen, Mansfield Park; Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God. Poetry – Denis Johnson, The Incognito Lounge; Elizabeth Spires, Globe; Andrew Hudgins, Saints & Strangers; Tracy K. Smith, Life on Mars.

Jane: I’ve cracked the spine of copies of Plath’s Ariel, Shapcott’s Her Book, and Levis’ Winter Stars. I’ll probably do the same with recent favorites like Erika Meitner’s Holy Moly Carry Me and Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s Oceanic. I’ve revisited Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway more summers than I can count.

Q: What is the most memorable reading you’ve attended?

Ned:  A.E. Stallings at Loyola University Maryland in 2019: not only was she gracious & her poems brilliant but she shared extensive footage, photos & anecdotes on her work in support of Syrian refugee families who’ve fled to Athens, Greece (where Stallings lives) – their children especially, whose poems & artwork reflect both hardship & hope.

Jane: I attended a Simon Armitage reading in a pub in Huddersfield back in 1994 that had all the fabulous energy of a football match — Armitage recited his poems and, since Huddersfield is his hometown, there was a palpable sense of poetry’s connection to the community. Several years ago, I hosted Paisley Rekdal in Loyola’s Modern Masters Series the day Guggenheim winners were announced. Paisley read a sequence of Mae West poems that would later appear in Imaginary Vessels — an amazing mini-seminar in the sonnet.

moving hands of Deaf Republic: Miwon Yoon

blog post by Laura Yoo

About one month before the publication of Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic in 2019, The New Yorker published a multimedia poetry project with a selection of poems from Kaminsky’s collection. This wonderful project by The New Yorker, with an introduction by poet Kevin Young, pushes the boundaries of alphabetic text on paper and creates a “reading” experience that is textual, visual, and auditory. Deaf Republic is so much about language and communication, about seeing and witnessing, and about sound and silence; and this project offers a multi-faceted way of interacting with Kaminsky’s poetry.

First, you can hear an audio of Kaminsky’s reading of each poem, starting with “Dramatis Personae,” which introduces the cast of characters of Deaf Republic. (You can listen to and watch Ilya Kaminsky’s live reading at the Blackbird Poetry Festival on April 29th!)

Second, this multimedia poetry project includes a set of moving illustrations that represent signing. At the very top of the webpage, we see two hands in bluish purple color. The index finger of one hand is pointing at the open palm of the other hand. This illustration represents “match.” In Deaf Republic, this sign for “match” accompanies two poems.

In “Arrival”: “In the nursery, quiet hisses like a match dropped in water.”

In “Theatre Nights”: “In the center of the stage Momma Galya strikes a match.”

As we scroll The New Yorker webpage, we see other movements that represent “town,” “the town watches,” “army convoy,” “hide,” and “story”. Some of these signs are based on various sign languages while “Other signs might have been made up by citizens, as they tried to create a language not known to authorities” (Deaf Republic).

Miwon Yoon is the artist who created the moving illustrations for The New Yorker, based on original drawings by Jennifer Whitten. (Read our interview with Jennifer Whitten here.) HoCoPoLitSo reached out to Miwon, an artist in Korea, to share with us about her work for this project.

Miwon says she she still hesitates at being called an “artist” for it’s a hard term to define, but she began imagining her life as a “self-employed artist” ever since she was in art school. She feels lucky that she can make a living doing her art. You can find two collections of her art – “everyday repetition” and “window collector” – on her website. Here’s what she had to say about her art and about working with Deaf Republic for The New Yorker.

How would you describe your art? 

I explore how image works between moving and still. Looped animation explores how the viewer spectates the image as a moving or still image. It has movements but time doesn’t flow. It comes back in a few seconds so the viewers are more free than when watching non-looped moving images.  Recently I collected windows or created imaginary windows, with the window frame capturing space and certain time. Capturing the moment but at the same time the scene remains in its movement.

What was your approach to creating the animations for Deaf Republic which are based on Jennifer Whitten’s drawings?

I tried to include a surreal part in the movement, little movement that cannot exist in real life, like flesh stretching or flame rising shapes. But at the same time I was asked not to go too conceptual and to be figurative because it had to look like sign language.

How do you think your animations contribute to the meaning of the poems?

Written words give you the possibility to imagine your own picture in your head (which I love about writing), but giving a certain image with words sometimes helps you narrow down from your imaginary thoughts from getting too big and hard to control. At the same time I never wanted to destroy the ambiguity of words, so that is why I created movements that cannot exist in the real world. When the movement is surreal, you can keep the image as an unfamiliar experience rather than connecting to a certain memory of your own.

I love your series of moving images titled “#everydayrepetition 사건아닌사건” which is similar to the style of the signs in The New Yorker article. Can you tell us more about that collection? 

Yes, I think the art director for The New Yorker project commissioned me after seeing those animations. I make animation with looped movement based on daily routines that you have to repeat endlessly. When I was staying abroad outside Korea, taking shoes on and off every time I hopped in bed or took a shower got me into compulsive thinking. It seemed like movement that has to be done unconsciously has become such a big incident. I started making those incidents as looped animation as a way of reducing the stress from it.

Deaf Republic artist: Jennifer Whitten

blog post by Laura Yoo

Jennifer Whitten – image provided by the artist

Ilya Kaminksy’s poetry collection Deaf Republic (2019) is a book that should be studied from cover to cover. Start with the brick wall of an ear against the black and white background. On the very first page inside, read the praises for Deaf Republic. Back of the inside cover page – note the names of all the artists who contributed to the book: the cover designer, the cover artist, and the artist of the interior illustrations. Read the “Notes” at the end of the book for the poet’s comments on signs and silence. Read the “Acknowledgements” page for the poet’s dedication of certain poems for fellow poets like Jericho Brown, Brian Turner, and Patricia Smith. You can see that it took a village.

image of page 9 of Deaf Republic

Turn to the back cover: “What happens when the citizens of a country no longer hear one another?”

Deaf Republic tells the story of a town that goes deaf in the face of brutality and oppression, and the collection includes drawings of hands that represent signing. The first image is a sign for “town” – two hands held up facing each other, tips of fingers touching, making a tent-like shape. Later, we see signs for “town watches”, “army convoy,” “hide,” “match,” “curtain,” “the town watches,” “story,” “kiss,” “be good,” “earth,” and “the crowd watches.” At the end of the book, the poet writes that the “In Vasenka, the townspeople invented their own sign language. Some of the signs are derived from various traditions (Russian, Ukrainian, Belarusian, American Sign Language, etc.) Other signs might have been made up by citizens, as they tried to create a language not known to authorities.”

In appreciation for the visual art of Deaf Republic, HoCoPoLitSo invited Jennifer Whitten, the artist responsible for the hand drawings in the collection, to share her experience of working with Ilya Kaminsky and his poetry as well as her vision for the project. We invite you to visit Jennifer’s Instagram page for examples of her art and to take a look at the videos of Jennifer at work (at the end of this article).

For those who are new to your art, how would you explain your aesthetic?

I began my career as a student of medicine, and though I made the difficult decision to pursue my passion for art over what many called the ‘sensible’ path of a doctor, science still colors my aesthetic. I’ve been called a hyperrealist painter, but my dogged attention to detail has very little to do with a metric for skill; after a great deal of reflection, I realized that my meticulousness was my response to a chaotic and troubled upbringing, one riddled with tragic death and loss. In this sense, I relate very deeply to Deaf Republic, insomuch that it serves, as a work of art, to process the past, and, to connect with others, even if their experiences aren’t facsimiles of our own. When you’re entranced by the process, you can tune out the external cacophony over which you have no control. So I make that process as difficult and all-consuming as possible; to make a reverse glass painting, not only do you have to contend with an incredibly slick and disobedient surface, the image is painted both backwards, and flipped. I first discovered reverse-glass painting in a private collection in Lake Como; while teaching myself the process, I grappled for information, anything that could help me navigate such difficult and uncharted territory, but learned that there are only a handful of other people in the world mad enough to take it on and they aren’t very vocal about their methods. Treading water in the deep-end left me a little more open to error and exploration than I had ever been before, which led to more ambitious installations and the incorporation of 3D, even 4D (time-based) media, like live music and video, into the 2D medium of painting. I think this experience prepped me in how to understand sign language illustrations as 2D representations of a 4D gesture.

How did you come to do the artwork for Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic? Can you tell us about the process of working with the poet and/or the poetry?

In 2017, I did a residency at the Vermont Studio Center. VSC has a unique advantage in that they bring in established writers and artists to offer the residents mentorship. Enter Ilya Kaminsky. The whole cohort was buzzing with talk of him and I confess that at that stage, I didn’t know who he was. But boy, did I find out, crammed into a main hall packed with people eagerly awaiting his reading. How can I describe what it was like to hear Ilya read, other than to say it was like keening, preaching and crooning all at once? The room was riveted, people were in tears. I only realized that I wasn’t breathing when he paused. And then, it was like the séance ended and the medium was back to his smiling, affable self. At some point during the week, VSC conducted Open Studio, where we would wander through each other’s workspaces to reflect on what we’d made so far; Ilya and his agent joined in. The next day, in the lunch line, he approached me and said he’d been quite taken with what he’d seen in my studio and asked if I’d be interested in collaborating, in illustrating his upcoming book of poetry. I was so flabbergasted, I nearly dropped my tray, while somehow managing to blurt out a resounding ‘yes’. 

What was your approach to creating the drawings for Deaf Republic? Are the drawings a representation of American Sign Language or another sign language?

What Ilya had seen during Open Studio that night were the line drawings I do in preparation for the paintings on glass […]; although minimal and unfinished, these lines were the aesthetic Ilya had had in mind. From what I gather, some of the signs are actually ASL (I recognized “Kiss” for example), while others were invented by Ilya. It was a challenge to distil my usual aesthetic, turning what normally serves as preparatory into a finished work (people often misinterpret simplicity for ease, but distillation is difficult!). The reference images provided to me were very sparse, so I relied on verbal descriptions for guidance—luckily, Ilya is a poet (and a damn good one)! This highlighted the intersection between the verbal and the visual for me. There was a bit of back and forth, particularly with “Hide”, where Ilya asked me to conceal the thumb behind the fingers a bit more, as though it were hiding. This made me hyper-aware of how creatively illustrative sign language can be. I saw my hands in a new light, anthropomorphized. To use my own as reference was so meaningful and it’s an honor to literally have had a hand in Ilya’s masterpiece. To form the signs with my fingers as I read meant that I wasn’t a passive reader, but rather one actively and corporeally engaged. 

How do you think your drawings contribute to the meaning of the poems? 

In Ilya’s words to me, “the image and the narrative are so connected, their moods often depending on each other”; it was important to me to capture the simultaneous blunt force and tender intimacy of Ilya’s poetry visually. Again, in Ilya’s words, “the lines [in your drawings] create their own continuum among the signs, how they present themselves eloquently, assertively, yet intimately.” Hearing readers are conditioned to associate the written word with sound, which is a part of language that is inaccessible and therefore meaningless/superfluous to a Deaf or Hard of Hearing individual. The written word was originally created as a representation of linguistic sound; my illustrations serve to question that automatic association in Hearing readers. I hope that my images reinforce what poetry, what sign language do in their own right, which is to remind readers that the written word has a visual component, both in terms of its morphology, but also in terms of its placement on a page and the negative space with which it interacts (I see a strong link in the way in which the naked glass in my painted works relate to the negative space on Ilya’s pages, both communicating absence, loss and silence). Blocks of text in prose do not use the visual aspect of language to drive the narrative—not in the way poetry can, or illustration can. The creativity behind sign language compels us to linger on individual words, the visual asking us to pause and consider what a word means at its core. Which is what poetry does. It’s a beautiful experience, like knowing that the German word for “lightbulb” is “glow pear”. 

On your Instagram page, I love the astrology series, which are hand-painted backwards on glass. (I’m an Aries, and the image of the ram is stunning!) Can you tell us more about that collection?

The Zodiac series has a bit in common with the images I did for Deaf Republic, in that both have semiotics at their core. But honestly, it began as a break from the scholastic, theory-laden vantage point I’d developed during my Masters program. I just wanted to reconnect with paint itself, to relish in the feel of it sliding over glass and in the satisfaction of creating the illusion of a variety of textures using only black and white. Working with the imagery of the Zodiac let me indulge in the exquisite differences between wool and scales, tentacles and horn, a butterfly’s wings and a crab’s claws. However, given the fact that a painting takes me not hours, but months to complete, I found myself, before long, listening to scholarly podcasts about astrology while at the easel. Some of my favorites were about Jung and archetype and I learned that astrology itself is a language, a system of intricate geometry and symbol.

Moreover, I realized that this incredibly rich, cultural mine has been largely left out of art historical discourse and scholarship, despite its prominence, and has been entirely rejected by the Science it originated. This is something astrology has the misfortune of sharing with glass painting, which, though once esteemed enough to be considered holy, devolved into a decorative/utilitarian craft over time. Though I hadn’t taken the Zodiac seriously at the outset, I’ve since been thoroughly moved by how it has captured the imaginations of civilizations all over the world and by how it’s a way for human beings to systematically apply meaning to the patterns we seek and find in chaos.

This is something that the Zodiac shares with language and music as well (how humans are able to apply pattern to random sounds and call it musical); my Zodiac paintings are part of a larger installation for which I developed an algorithm to translate the Zodiacal constellations (upon which the animals are based) into notes for cello. As a whole, it’s a translation from literal to abstract and calls attention to the impulse to do this, which is uniquely human. 

Jennifer Whitten – Glass Painting
Aries – Painted backwards on Glass!

the art of characterization – a reflection on the bauder student workshop

a blog post by Suhani Khosla

As a reader, loving characters that are born from good writing is easy for me. I rooted for Frances Janvier in Radio Silence, mourned Lydia Lee from Everything I Never Told You, and laughed with Pip from Enid Blyton’s classics. I am awed that every tiny reaction of the hundreds of characters I’ve come across had the potential to alter their respective stories.

As a writer, though, it is always challenging to build admirable characters: either their initial personality is too shallow, or my descriptions veer helplessly into unnecessary ramblings. 

At Friday Black Bauder Student Workshop on March 4th held by Howard Community College, Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah and Tope Folarin taught me the ins-and-outs of characterization. By the end of the workshop, I saw how these strategies meshed and intertwined with Friday Black’s narratives: through the framework of Adjei-Brenyah’s characters, I was able to fully understand prejudice, such anger, and such resilience. 

Adjei-Brenyah and Folarin first began with the different types of characterization, engaging the participants from the get-go with creative examples of each. As we went through the modes of characterization (expository, description, and action), the chat blew up with participant’s replies and examples. I saw the benefits of all methods, and some of the drawbacks: expository was a simple explanation, quick and to the point, but only an explanation; description almost forced a perception of the character, yet description called for artful word choice that would lift the passage; and through recording action readers could form a “nuanced view” without influence by the narrator’s voice, yet it could pose the threat of being too vague. 

All avenues were used in the final activity, just as Adjei-Brenyah employs them in his writing. We were instructed to create a hero (or an anti-hero) with the following set of questions: 

  1. What is their power/ability that makes them special? Why?
  2. How did they get the ability? 
  3. What does your character want (initially)? 
  4. Who might try to stop them? 

And based on our answers, we used the modes of characterization to create our heroes/anti-heroes. I found it easier and fun to craft a character succinctly, a character that, maybe one day, could stand with the famous and the infamous ones that shaped my life thus far. 

Through workshops with engaging repartee among the hosts and participants, students like myself can gather the tools to add layers of depth to their writing. Crafting our individual narratives relies deeply on how we present ourselves and those around us, a process Adjei-Brenyah and Folarin taught us effortlessly. Happy writing! 

To watch Adjei-Brenya’s Bauder lecture, make sure to visit https://vimeo.com/showcase/8082121?video=507368937

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Suhani Khosla is a senior at Atholton High School. She likes to read, draw, and write during her free time. She is currently reading Simon Sebag Montefiore’s biography on Jerusalem and Friday Black. Suhani loves working with HoCoPoLitSo as a Bauder Student On Board member, and she hopes to continue her interest in the arts in college.

mana’s musings – international women’s day edition

a blog post by Laura Yoo

The Women I Don’t Know

Last year when I was writing the syllabus for my women’s literature course, I wondered about the “women” part of that course name. What is “woman” and who should be included in this reading list?

As I flipped through the textbook, The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women: Traditions in English, I tried to compose a reading list that was diverse. Immediately I saw the gaps in the anthology. Among those missing or underrepresented were African women writers and transgender women writers. I recognized, too, that it’s not just Norton – there are gaps in my own encounter with women’s stories from diverse walks of life and backgrounds. I know so little about these women.

And when I don’t know something, I go and read. But what do I read? Who do I read?

Transgender Women Writers

In the opening of their article “Toward Creating Trans Literary Canon” RL Goldberg is in a situation similar to mine – teaching a course called “Masculinity in Literature” and wondering what we mean by masculine. Goldberg’s students are incarcerated twenty something men who are working toward a college degree. Interestingly, the debate among the students is not over words like “transgender, transsexual, agender, two-spirit, trans woman, bigender, trans man, FTM, MTF, boi, femme, soft butch, cisgender” – these, the students understood.  However, “What was contentious: man and woman,” Goldberg shares. This makes complete sense. Of course, it’s words that we think we know, words that seem so clearly opposite, that we must grapple with because they evolve.

In keeping with defying or moving across the spectrum of categories, whether that’s genre or gender, Goldberg includes in their list of works for recommendation Freshwater (about being an obenje) by Akwaeke Emezi and Mucus in My Pineal Gland (“displacing or disregarding genre or gender”) by Juliana Huxtable.

In “12 of the Best Books by Trans Authors That You Need to Read” Torrey Peters (her own novel is called Detransition, Baby) includes these works that show a range in genre and themes: The Unkindness of Ghosts by River Solomon (a science fiction novel that explores structural racism) and Fairest by Meredith Talusan (memoir of Filipino boy with albinism coming to America who is mistaken for white and becomes a woman).

African Women Writers

When it comes to African women writers, we come across incredible diversity among them as Africa is a big place with long, complex histories – with many different languages and cultures. This article from The Guardian, “My year of reading African women, by Gary Youngue” is an excellent introduction for novice readers of African women writers. Youngue’s reading list includes the following:

  • Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
  • Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi
  • The Secret Lives of Baga Segi’s Wives by Lola Shoneyin
  • Stay with Me by Ayobami Adebayo
  • The Map of Love by Ahdaf Soueif
  • The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna
  • We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo
  • Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue
  • Beneath the Lion’s Gaze by Maaza Mengiste
  • The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami

And I recommend that you read Youngue’s article for his take on what these works offer us.

This article from Electric Literature, “10 Books by African Women Rewriting History” by Carey Baraka, includes these contemporary recommendations: Dust by Yvonne Adhiambo (set in 2008 Kenyan presidential election), The Hundred Wells of Salaga by Ayesha Harruna Attah (set in Northern Ghana during pre-colonial times), and The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell (focusing on a Zambian space program).

Expanding Our Sphere of Reading

I know these are incomplete lists, and lists like these reflect the personal as well as the cultural tastes of the one creating the list. And all these recommendations are limited to those authors writing in English.  Also, I know that when I look for “transgender women writers” I may be excluding – or drawing lines that exclude – nonbinary and gender nonconforming writers.

As an Asian American woman, I have been diving into Asian American literature lately, particularly those by women. I recommend The Prince of Mournful Thoughts and Other Stories by Caroline Kim (short story collection) and Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha (set against the 1992 LA Riots). It has been so exciting, after so many years of being a student and teacher of literature, to finally discover writers and read books by and about Asian Americans.  To open a book and witness stories that I recognize is a certain kind of gift that representation brings.

However, we also turn to books to see the world through others’ eyes. So, if there’s a blind spot in your literary journey (and your blind spot will be different from mine),  take a ride with some of the women writers you don’t yet know on this International Women’s Day.

six questions with regie cabico and chad frame

Regie Cabico and Chad Frame

Regie Cabico and Chad Frame are the feature writers at the March Wilde Readings, a monthly community open mic supported by HoCoPoLitSo. Join Regie and Chad as well as other open mic readers for a free, virtual reading on Tuesday, March 9th at 7:00 pm.  Register here Get to know Regie and Chad with our Six Questions.

Who is the person in your life (past or present) that shows up most often in your writing?
Regie: My muse, a lover, a secret crush, a celebrity crush and most recently, Filipino mythological deities and monsters.
Chad: Quite a few people from my past show up, as most of my writing is autobiographical. I have a collection coming out (Little Black Book) that’s entirely made up of poems about people from my past who were formative to my identity and sexuality, usually (but not always) failed romances. The poems are just titled with a first name, and I pointedly didn’t change any of the names, so that should make some waves when it comes out! I also wrote a collection (Two-Step Charlie) about the death of my father, who was an alcoholic Vietnam veteran. I wanted to chronicle the entire experience, from his terminal cancer diagnosis to his treatment, to taking care of him in hospice, to his inevitable passing, and beyond.
Where is your favorite place to write?
Regie: H Street NE, DC outside of Wydown, at Maketto in their back yard, on my patio, on an airplane, train, hotel room.
Chad: I’d like to say at some sort of antique desk with a feather quill or vintage typewriter, but quite honestly, I write at a cluttered table that was once a dining room table, but which is so covered in books and papers it’s utterly unrecognizable. My laptop is at one edge with a tiny area cleaned off for it, and otherwise my back is to a windowsill overloaded with potted plants.
Do you have any consistent pre-writing rituals?
Regie: I read a lot of poems online, watch poetry performances, write with my students and write in a notebook I carry with me everywhere. Then I might have a can of Mango Truly Seltzer or iced green tea and transfer my journal writing on my Google Chromebook.
Chad: I’m rarely consistent, but I always do an extensive amount of research before and while I write. It’s not unusual for me to have dozens of browser tabs open on my computer and phone to be reading all manner of information I might need to write. I also write a lot of found poetry (I’m particularly fond of the cento), and whenever I do that I always have a lot of research open for quotes, but I like to scrawl things out in a physical journal, since it feels more like I’m piecing together a puzzle that way. Odd, I suppose, but it works for me.
Who always gets a first read?
Regie: I will send to Soo-Jin Lee, a playwright, Drew Pisarra, a writer in Manhattan, and an ex Guillermo Filice Castro.
Chad: I tend to read things out loud to myself, but since my Maine Coon, Jabbers (short for Jabberwocky) is always by my side, I suppose he gets first read. I do also have a wonderful writing group (shout out to Montco WordShop!) who meet once a month who are always supportive and helpful with my work, and (hopefully) they can say the same about me.
What is a book you’ve read more than twice (and would read again)?
Regie: I always turn to the poetry in The Language of Saxophones by Kamou Daaood & Crossing With The Light by Dwight Okita
Chad: Recent obsessions include: Madeline Miller’s Circe and The Song of Achilles, Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone’s This is How You Lose the Time War, and absolutely anything by N.K. Jemisin, but particularly her speculative short fiction in How Long Till Black Future Month.
What is the most memorable reading you have attended?
Regie: The Poetry Slam Finals in 1994, San Francisco. I was on the New York Team with Maggie Estepp, Tracie Morris, Hal Sirowitz versus the Boston Team with Patricia Smith, Lisa King, Craig Hickman.
Chad: Performances with No River Twice, my poetry and improv performance group, are always memorable, since no two readings are ever the same. I’ve read at big venues with hundreds of people and very tiny ones where only the performers showed up, yet still had a lot of fun reading to one another. I’ve enjoyed them all, but my most notable reading was probably at the Library of Congress.
Register here and join Regie and Chad on March 9th at 7 pm!

The Women in Minari, Asian Literature, and Beyond

Minari (2021) directed by Lee Isaac Chung image from: https://d135u4jtzauizi.cloudfront.net/_thumbnail/A24_MINARI_POSTER.jpg

In this guest blog, Sylvia Lee reflects on the film Minari and on the experiences and representations of Asian American women in literature and films.

It’s been a surreal year for everyone, but for Korean Americans, even more so.

Maybe it’s a stretch to speak for all Korean Americans, so I’ll speak for myself. Seeing Koreans at the Oscars winning for Parasite, accepting awards in Korean, has been surreal.

The popularity of Korean food, and seeing Korean restaurants full of non-Koreans (many times ordering in Korean) has been surreal.

The rise of K-pop, which I’d listen to back when the only way to hear it was by waiting for my dad to bring home VHS tapes of Korean music shows that were already weeks past air date, has been surreal.

But all of these were distinctly Korean, not Korean American. The only way to see Korean Americans thus far was to watch celebrity cooking shows starring David Chang and Roy Choi, or read Korean American authors, and the latter has been nowhere close to the same scale as Parasite.

To be unseen for so long, and then to have a light cast on you suddenly is unsettling. Early on, I became aware of the dangers of being too visible; the weight of stereotypes, the pressure to be exceptional when you’re the only Asian in the room, and what happens when too many Asians are together and folks are reminded of our perpetual foreignness. Invisibility, which can come in the form of labels like “white adjacent,” is bad enough, but hypervisibility, which can come in the form of “yellow peril” is equally traumatizing. There has been no in between, and to now see representations of myself so frequently, in so many cultural realms, has been like seeing myself in a distorted funhouse mirror. 

So when the preview for Isaac Lee Chung’s film Minari, starring Steven Yeun, was released and then buzzed about, I felt anxiety where I should have felt sheer pride. I realized that now I was being seen–seen as in exposed.

The movie, which I have since watched in its entirety, does indeed do this, but in unexpected ways: it sees me, and it invites me to see myself by seeing my parents in their youth. I see my father in Steven Yeun’s portrayal of Jacob Yi, even though the two men are quite different. I see my mother in Yeri Han’s portrayal of Monica, even my grandmother in Youn Yuh-Jung’s Soon Ja. It is as much a movie about an Asian American audience as it is about the Asian American immigrant experience.

Minari centers on the story of a Korean immigrant family, staking their claim in rural Arkansas, pursuing the father’s vision of providing Korean produce to Korean businesses to sell to Korean immigrants. Like any immigrant story, this dream is easier dreamed than achieved. The father, Jacob Yi, has a name perfect for such a premise—like the Jewish forefather whose name he shares, Jacob is patriarchal and is posed to create a legacy that will carry on in his genealogy, setting down roots in a new land. But this story as much belongs to Jacob’s wife, Monica, whose name has a more modern ring to it, and it is Monica who wishes to be back in California, a more progressive place for Koreans to thrive.

It is Monica that I want to see most clearly, and yet, in the press junkets for Minari, Monica and Yeri Han’s portrayal of her seems to be overlooked. While Jacob Yi is played by Yeun, a Korean American whose father was also an immigrant, Monica’s character is played by Yeri Han, a well-known Korean actress. This casting is in some ways more accurate to the character Han is playing—a Korean woman transported to a foreign, unfamiliar setting. But whereas the character of Jacob Yi can be read from a Korean American perspective, the same does not apply as cleanly to Monica. Chung’s writing of Jacob is from the perspective of a Korean American male who has studied and knows the Korean father, the patriarch, well. As I see Monica, I see her through a son’s gaze, transfixed. It is not the white male gaze, but the gaze is unmistakably male, with the emphasis on Yeun, likely because he is the lead actor, than on Han. She still plays an important supporting role of course, in the same way that a Korean mother is often seen setting the table and making the meal, but not enjoying it with her family. 

In his recent, excellent New York Times Magazine feature essay on Steven Yeun, writer Jay Caspian Kang quotes Yeun as saying, “Sometimes I wonder if the Asian-American experience is what it’s like when you’re thinking about everyone else, but nobody else is thinking about you.”

If this is true about Asian American experience, it is especially true of Asian American women. In Minari, this rings true of Monica. She is thinking about Jacob’s dream, concerned about family survival, and about caring for her children, while decidedly not thinking about herself. When her mother Soon Ja arrives from Korea with an immin bag full of Korean grocery staples unavailable in the US, Monica breaks down in tears. The acknowledgment of need is the acknowledgment that she has been remembered. It is one moment in the film where Monica is seen. 

And so goes the trope of Korean—and most immigrant—mothers: their primary means to enact decisions is in service for the greater good of the family in pursuit of their husbands’ and then their children’s needs, and this is done silently. In the film, Monica has been aware all along of the struggles Jacob has kept hidden from her, but she says nothing. When Monica’s mother comes from Korea to help care for the children, this trope is played out further. Even in her old age, the Korean mother travels abroad to help her daughter to the point of a health crisis, sacrificing her physical body for the good of the family as a stroke renders her unable to speak. It is this silence, above all, that comes to characterize Korean women. 

Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning by Cathy Park Hong

In Minor Feelings, Cathy Park Hong discusses one way this silence manifests. It is keeping quiet about trauma, specifically sexual violence. Asian American women, as Hong cites, report some of the lowest rates of sexual assault. Hong is right to distrust these reports, when silence is so endemic to the Asian American female experience. Hong describes how she’d hear about Asian women who disappeared, or “went mad” with no further discussion or explanation provided to her. There are many examples in Asian literature.  Maxine Hong Kingston writes about the “No Name Woman” in her book Woman Warrior. Cho Nam-ju’s Kim Ji Young, Born 1982, attempts to articulate so many of the sexist experiences that silently make up the Korean female’s position in society. Han Kang’s The Vegetarian centers around the story of a woman who ends up literally silenced in a vegetative state, a result of the trauma absorbed over a lifetime. 

Over a lunch of bibimbap and cabbage soup, my mom tells me of her oldest sister, whose name I don’t know, but have always referred to as the Daechon eemo, which is the city she lives in along with title “aunt.” It would be akin to my nephew calling me “Baltimore aunt.” But Daechon eemo is not the aunt my mother is referring to. She had another sister, she says, the oldest one of all the girls in the family. I’m floored. How did I not know about the existence of another family member? And yet, I don’t know why I should be surprised, given how little I know about my aunts in Korea. She tells me that this aunt died in her mid-thirties, quite young, and in fact, the same age I am when I hear this. Like many women during the 1950s, my aunt was married off before having met her husband, and when the marriage proves so unbearable (in ways I am not told about) she runs away back to her family, she is told by her father that leaving her husband would ruin the prospects of all of her remaining siblings. And so, she returns, sacrificing herself until her very body succumbs to her hardship. It reads like a bad Lisa See novel minus the enduring female friendship.

I know that suffering is not unique to Korean women. All women carry this DNA in their bodies, and it is not the only narrative Korean women have. In Minari, I at once appreciate that I am spared insight into Monica’s suffering, but I am also perplexed by the lack of it. She is distraught over her son’s health condition, but aside from the moment she cracks open in a pivotal argument with Jacob, she is cast as the silent, albeit beleaguered, wife. In her silence, I see my mother, my aunt. But while the film invites me to witness Jacob’s struggles, I am not invited to witness Monica’s in similar detail. 

What I see instead, is Chung leaning into the trope of the Korean grandmother, the halmoni, to portray this experience. That’s because it is the halmoni who raised so many of us while our mothers were at work, and that recognition is even given in the end credits. We see the physicality of suffering through their broken bodies, and personality too. Soon Ja, played by Youn Yuh Jung, is given the means not just to portray her own sacrifice, but to be her memorable, quirky and quixotic self, her dedication and identity carved throughout the movie in poignant episodes like planting the minari the movie is titled after, a scene that suggests it is the halmoni, not the mother, who ensured that our roots were planted in an inhospitable environment. 

The mother’s labor, like so much of her story, is largely invisible, as is Yeri Han in comparison to Yeun, whose star status is immediately more recognizable to American audiences. But as Yeun reflects, repeatedly, on his role in the movie, the conceptualization in character development and voice, Han is missing, and in the moments she can speak, she is speaking from a different perspective than Yeun, who has walked the life of the audience and the writer of the movie. The voice of the Korean woman is once again silent and she is rendered invisible, even if what we get from Han is an admirable performance of displacement and silent strength.

But this phenomenon of silence is not because we aren’t speaking. In an essay published in The Racial Imaginary, poet Jennifer Chang writes, in reference to being mistaken for the writer Victoria Chang: “Why am I so hard to distinguish, so hard to remember?” She calls this feeling of interchangeability a specific strain, set apart from invisibility, in that one is seen, but seen as “a synonym.”

As I watch Minari, I wonder how much of Monica and even Soon Ja, are synonym, interchangeable, in the same way I wonder how much of myself will be absorbed, forgotten into what Fatimah Asghar described as “a dance of strangers in my blood.” Once my life is over, will I be relegated to a generic supporting role, destined to be a stranger to my own children? This interchangeability is a result of the lack of attention given to the varied stories, written by and for Asian American women who have walked the lives of their audience as the leads in their own stories.

Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha

The Magical Language of Others by 고은지 EJ Koh

There are glimmers though, that as representations and visibility increase, and Asian American women are able to experiment with their work, the vague blurred images of us will form a more accurate mosaic, not solely bound by tropes.  In the literary world, Korean American women writers are doing the work. Glancing at the literary landscape, one can see, in plain sight, writers like Min Jin Lee, author of Pachinko and Free Food for Millionaires, EJ Koh, author of The Magical Language of Others, Steph Cha, author of Your House Will Pay, Cathy Park Hong, author of Minor Feelings, carving out space for varied narratives to come to light. 

In film and television, directors like Lulu Wang are making inroads. Pachinko has been ordered to series by Apple TV. Sandra Oh is set to play the lead in The Chair, a Netflix series about a Korean American who is the chair of the English department at her college. The last one brings an odd hypervisibility again, as I too am a Korean American chair of my English department. I am shocked to see such a close representation of my situation, but I know I should grow accustomed and deserve to see myself too, something Minari revealed. I am my own audience, that there’s enough of me to be a central audience, and I owe no explanations to others who are interested enough to watch as well. This is not exclusionary; it is being comfortable not having to explain or interpret myself to others, something I’ve grown accustomed to. 

Yet the anxiety at being too visible persists. Maybe it’s vestigial, this feeling; from having to be exceptional, having a unique identity that when represented, triggers the synonym syndrome. Or maybe it’s because I know, as the voices grow louder, the stories brought into the spotlight, there will still be distortion. But, as in any case when the eyes have been in darkness for so long, or the ears flooded with sound after such silence, the period of discomfort will be necessary, making what is seen and heard that much brighter and clearer.

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Sylvia Lee is a current Chair and an Associate Professor of English at Howard Community College where she teaches composition, creative writing, and literature courses. She was previously an Assistant Professor at Montgomery College and has had teaching posts in New York and South Korea. She has been published in places such as The Korea Herald, Poets and Writers Magazine, and Lostwriters, among others. She has served on the editorial boards for several literary magazines, including HCC’s community publication The Muse. She received her M.F.A. in Writing at Sarah Lawrence College and a B.A. in English from the University of Maryland at College Park.

six questions with Patti Ross and Gwen Van Velsor

We asked our guest writers of the February Wilde Readings to tell us a little bit about their reading and writing favorites and habits. Get to know Patti Ross and Gwen Van Velsor here and join their reading on February 9th at 7:00 pm via Facebook!

Patti Ross

Patti Ross is a local spoken word artist and host of EC Poetry and Prose Open Mic in Ellicott City, MD. A graduate of The Duke Ellington School for the Arts and the American University. Patti began her writing career for Rural America Newspapers. A lifelong advocate for the poor and homeless often using the pseudonym “little pi” Patti writes poems about the racially marginalized and society’s traumatization of the human spirit. Her blog: https://littlepisuniverse.wordpress.com

Who is the person in your life (past or present) that shows up most often in your writing?

PR: My ancestral mothers – both related and unrelated.

Where is your favorite place to write?

PR: In front of a window looking out at nature.

Do you have any consistent pre-writing rituals?

PR: I always hand write in a journal my first thoughts and first drafts.

Who always gets a first read?

PR: My accountability partner and a couple of other best friends. I also share the second draft and sometimes the first with my poetry critique group.

What is a book you’ve read more than twice (and would read again)?

PR: The Bible.

What is the most memorable reading you have attended?

PR: A young adult reading at the Strathmore titled Manual Cinema’s No Blue Memories: The Life of Gwendolyn Brooks for an exploration of DC’s grassroots poetry scene. Kim Roberts was the host and the poets were some of the best performance poets in the region. Marjan Naderi was/is fabulous. She is DC’s Youth Poet Laureate, holds five Grand Slam Champion titles: Library of Congress 2018 National Book Festival Poetry Slam Champion, two-time national Muslim Interscholastic Tournament Spoken Word Winner, 2018 NoVA Invitational Slam Champion, and the 2019 DC Youth Slam Finals Slam Champion. While being on the 2018 and 2019 DC Youth Slam Team, Marjan was featured in the Washington Post and NowThisHer. As the first Muslim American and Afghan woman to be announced as the Library of Congress’ National Book Festival Poetry Champion. I have heard her speak several times since then and her words still make me shiver. I love watching young adult poets perform. They share words with keen intention.

 

Gwen Van Velsor

Gwen Van Velsor writes creative nonfiction and holds a degree in Special Education from the University of Hawaii at Manoa. She started Yellow Arrow Publishing in 2016, a project that supports writers who identify as women. Her major accomplishments include walking the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage in Spain, raising a toddler, and being OK with life exactly as it is. She has published two memoirs, Follow That Arrow, in 2016 and Freedom Warrior, in 2020.

Who is the person in your life (past or present) that shows up most often in your writing?

GVV: For better or worse, I have written the most about my ex-husband. We grew up together in a way, and there are infinite ways to write about and process those years.

Where is your favorite place to write?

GVV: I love to write in a cozy coffee shop that is buzzing with busy customers. It keeps me in a good balance between writing and daydreaming. I’m less likely to surf the internet aimlessly or bang my head on the table in editing distress when in public.

Do you have any consistent pre-writing rituals?

GVV: I try not to engage in too many rituals since I end up getting distracted by them versus feeling supported. My most consistent ritual is to write everything by hand first, then type it up when I’m in the mood. I find the hand/head/heart connection keeps me honest on the page. Typing somehow takes me away from that.

Who always gets a first read?

GVV: My best friend Rachael! She is always enthusiastic about what I write, no matter what, which is what I need in a first read in order to keep going.

What is a book you’ve read more than twice (and would read again)?

GVV: The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. It’s my go-to book when my writing is stagnant, it never gets old.

What is the most memorable reading you have attended?

GVV: I heard Rafael Alvarez give a reading in the basement of an art studio on a rainy night. It was a tiny crowd from Highlandtown (Alvarez’s “Holy Land”) and he was absolutely in his element. He was so passionate about his love for Baltimore, it was highly contagious.


Join Patti Ross and Gwen Van Velsor for an evening of reading and open mic on February 9th at 7 pm!

 

 

 

 

 

HoCoPoLitSo recommends – best books we read in 2020

[from left to right] Be Recorder, The Book of Delights, Obit, The Understudy’s Handbook, Friday Black, The Boy The Mole The Fox and The Horse, Raising King

During all the quarantines, lockdowns, stay-home orders, and socially distanced holidays of 2020, many of us have been busy reading. Here are some recommendations from the board members of Howard County Poetry and Literature Society. Look for these books at our local bookstores in Maryland or visit www.bookshop.org to support independent bookstores across the country.

Tara recommends Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell.

“I loved this informed, insightful journey of imagination, underpinned by a respect for historical fact, into the intimate, inner life of the Bard as seen by those closest to him. This 360 degree family perspective is a fresh, masterfully designed, and moving vehicle to further our delight in and fascination with Shakespeare.”

Pam recommends The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott.

“The story reminded me of the role/value religious play(ed) in our community, that no one is immune from ethical decisions and our actions can have long-lasting ripple effects. The ‘best’ action(s) is not always the ‘approved’ action.”

Kathy L. recommends Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell.

“Along with an analysis of how often we make wrong assumptions about people due to unacknowledged biases, it includes a good discussion on effective policing.”

Susan recommends The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett.

The book “‘starts with a pair of light-skinned Black twins growing up in a tiny Louisiana town. They run away from home, are separated, and one of the sisters ‘passes’ as white. Their daughters’ lives eventually intersect. This novel explores the idea of recreating a self different from the one you’re born into – changing genders, races, social classes – in really interesting ways. Bennett’s book makes you think about who we are, and what defines the self, as well as leads us through forty years of American history.”

Kathy S. recommends 10 Minutes, 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak.

“A captivating exploration of the beauty and brutality of Istanbul through the last thoughts of a murdered woman and the response from her small community of outcast friends.”

Laura recommends The Prince of Mournful Thoughts and Other Stories by Caroline Kim.

“This collection of short stories skillfully manages to be specific to Korean and Korean-American experience/perspective and at the same time universal in its exploration of love, loss, family, resilience, belonging, and crossing borders/boundaries.”

MORE RECOMMENDATIONS

Fiction

  • Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah (Howard County Book Connection Book)
  • A Particular Kind of Black Man by Tope Folarin
  • If I Had Your Face by Frances Ha
  • The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
  • The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson

Nonfiction

  • The Book of Delights by Ross Gay
  • Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe
  • The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse by Charlie Mackesy
  • Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language by Gretchen McCulloch
  • Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong

Poetry

  • Obit by Victoria Chang
  • Be Recorder: Poems by Carmen Gimenez Smith
  • Deaf Republic: Poems by Ilya Kaminsky (The Blackbird Poetry Festival poet 2021)
  • The Understudy’s Handbook by Steven Leyva (Current HoCoPoLitSo Writer-in-Residence 2020-2021)
  • Raising King by Joseph Ross (Former HoCoPoLitSo Writer-in-Residence 2014-2015)

 

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